Baltimore's incredible shrinking rape total

In today's Sun, we explore a troubling trend in sexual assault investigations in Baltimore: The city has for the past four years recorded the highest percentage of rape cases that officers conclude are false or baseless of any city in the country, with more than 30 percent of the cases investigated by detectives each year deemed unfounded.

But the problem in Baltimore may go even deeper. In four of 10 emergency calls that come to police for rapes, officers conclude that there is no need for a further review, so the case never makes it to detectives – a proportion that experts say is disturbingly high.

The increase in unfounded cases comes as the number of total rapes reported by Baltimore police has plunged - from 684 in 1995 to 158 last year, a decline of nearly 80 percent. Nationally, FBI reports show rapes have fallen 8 percent over the same time frame. We're one of five cities that record more homicides than rapes; most peer cities have a ratio of three to five rapes per homicide.

Police initially brushed off our findings, and the commander of the sex offense unit dismissed the high number of cases by saying, "We have a lot of people that are engaged in sexual activity in this city." He also said that the city's various services for women and victims led women to make up stories to take advantage of them.

In an attempt to solicit a more comprehensive response, I submitted various statistics to one of the mayor's aides. As the story was being finalized, I received an unsolicited three-paragraph statement from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, saying the data showed a "critical need" to review department policies. She said the police commissioner assured her that a full-scale audit would be conducted and she convened an existing task force to study the issue.

In many ways the story raises more questions than it is able to answer. The numbers were so jarring that, coupled with anecdotes from people engaged with victims and a review of dozens of incident reports, they warranted a long look. But serious questions remain about the number of cases unfounded in the field by patrol officers - or how many are recorded as other, lesser crimes.

Some officers told me privately that the many of the "unfounded" 911 calls are false but are just not being "coded" - or classified - correctly. Experts including the former head of sex offense investigations in San Diego said that was essentially impossible. As for the investigations by detectives, is it possible, as current and former officers said, that they simply do a better job investigating than their counterparts in other cities and face a far different class of alleged victims? The comprehensive audit may generate answers.

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